Bob Dylan claims not to be prophet, excluding the period where he preached the word of God. This is difficult for me to believe given that he described my father’s dementia problems in intimate detail roughly a decade and a half before they began in the song “High Water (For Charley Patton)”. I’m obviously using poetic license there, but I think it’s an honest reflection of Dylan’s writing; I’ve heard all sorts of personal and impersonal stories in his songs, and this song isn’t the only one where I heard an entire story all the way through – “Narrow Way” manages to tell, beat-for-beat, the collapse of a friendship I had years before listening to it, and I considered writing about the connections between “Like A Rolling Stone” and The Shield before deciding writing about living with dementia was more interesting. Specific in imagery, specific in feeling, broad in meaning – this is Dylanesque.
High water rising, rising night and day / All the gold and silver bein’ stolen away
Rising flood waters is a perfect metaphor for dementia. It’s an eternal decline in which bits and pieces are falling off you, never to return. It’s not a disease that ebbs and flows; the best you can hope for is that it plateaus long enough to get your bearings for a little while. It’s uncompromising, indifferent, and can’t be fought, reasoned, or bargained with. When you work with a child, you can teach them how to do things because their brains are constantly soaking up information. When you work with my father, you know you’re probably going to have to do more for him tomorrow.
Big Joe Turner lookin’ east and west from the dark rooms of his mind / He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine / Nothin’ standin’ there, high water everywhere
At points it feels like there’s a wall between my Dad and the rest of the world he can’t seem to break through. This is most obvious in how often he loses the word for what he’s trying to describe. Big Joe Turner was, obviously, an American singer probably most famous for “Shake, Rattle & Roll”, a song Dad likes and of a period and style he always enjoyed listening to when he was working in the shed; the image of him looking around a dark room on the edge of a rock’n’roll city devoid of life is emotionally resonant with the image of Dad when the confusion sets in.
High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down / folks lose their possessions and folks are leavin’ town
I spent the majority of my childhood visiting my grandparents in a place called Granville – essentially, a street of shacks that people had built with their own two hands. My grandfather had built his own house on top of a hill just outside of Granville; my father had owned a shack in Granville itself that he sold when I was just old enough to remember. Most of my childhood memory of Dad is of him building things – fences, trailers, sheds, cars. In reality, Granville has been going through something like gentrification over my lifetime; the shacks have gradually become more expensive and more elaborate as richer people are retiring there and the old generation is dying off. But the image of hand-built shacks collapsing under flood waters serves as poetic image for dementia.
Bertha Mason shook it, broke it, then she hung it on the wall / sayin’ dancin’ with whom they tell ya to or you don’t dance at all / It’s tough out there, high water everywhere
These lines make me think of my mother. She has always had a habit of remaking her environment; I have always lived with the fact that she changes up the design of the living room every six months or so for the sake of fixing an inefficiency I never noticed or cared about. Putting in dementia needs has given this sensibility a focus and drive, trying to prevent accidents and make it easier for him and everyone else – my favourite detail is her putting up a picture of a bookshelf on my sister’s door so he registers it as a bookshelf and doesn’t wander in there. It’s tough on her, and she steels her resolve because he was there for her thirty years ago and he needs her there now. Gotta dance with him now or the whole thing was pointless.
I gotta cravin’ love for blazin’ speed, got a hopped up Mustang Ford / Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard
This is where I interpret it little ironically, which would feel like cheating if it didn’t feel appropriately ironic. One of the small side effects of Dad’s dementia is he’s frightened by fast driving now; he can’t stand being in the car with my sister driving because she drives like an asshole even by mentally healthy standards. But it feels emotionally appropriate because poor health has not affected his drive to keep doing the things he loves doing. It frustrates him that he can’t drive anymore, or can’t hold a whole conversation, or keep building things, or fulfilling his cravin’ love for blazin’ speed.
I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind / I’m no pig without a wig, I hope you treat me kind / Things are breakin’ up out there, high water everywhere
It also frustrates him that he can’t be seen the way he used to be seen. He served in Malaysia, he rode his motorbike across Australia, he worked in the famously soft and easygoing mining industry for most of his life, and now he’s an old man with less ability to look after himself than most children. He can’t defend his decisions or sense of dignity anywhere near as easily as he used to; he’s at the mercy of kindness now.
High water risin’, six inches ‘bove my head / coffins droppin’ in the street like balloons made out of lead
Dad is at the point where many of his friends are either on their way out the door or have already died.
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m gonna do / Don’t reach out for me she said, can’t you see I’m drownin’ too? / It’s rough out there, high water everywhere
Dad is in a position where he needs a lot of help, but the people around him aren’t always able to deliver. Mum, my sister, me; we all have our limitations. Being a carer is hard, bordering on impossible, and because the water keeps rising every day, it gets harder. There are points where we can’t be what he needs. Ideally, this is where a wider community comes in, but the further you get out from the circle, the harder it becomes. People are not always reliable. We’re all drownin’.
Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian, and the Jew / ‘You can’t open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view’
The weird thing about dementia is that it makes perfect sense from a tragic perspective. It’s a point inbetween being alive and being dead in that your ability to initiate action has been taken away from you but you still have to live with the consequences, and in which you are now not much more than your general attitude frozen in time. Dad’s ability to take in new information and attitudes – never something he much embraced before – has crumbled. He always had a paternalistic attitude towards women, putting up a wall between him and them because, I suspect, that’s what he figures men do, and now it’s come back on him because he exhausts himself keeping that wall up. Now it’s too late to bring that wall down.
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five / Judge said to the High Sheriff, ‘I want him dead or alive / Either one I don’t care’, high water everywhere
I’ve never been able to relate to the idea that dementia takes away who the person was. I still see my Dad – I still his drives and motivations and the resultant advantages and disadvantages they bring him. The first thing to really go has been his reasoning; it’s like the steps to any process are still in his head, but he reaches step three out of five and loses his place. If Darwin represents intelligence and Reason, it’s out there on Highway Five.
Well, the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies / I’m preachin’ the word of God, I’m putting out your eyes
I admit, this is the one place in the song where I can’t fully make it fit my situation. The best I can do is, knowing that the first line is a reference to a song, saying that this matches my Dad’s occasional aphasia, in which he substitutes a word he heard seconds ago for what he actually means.
I asked Fat Nancy for somethin’ to eat, she said “Take it off the shelf / As great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself,” / I told her I didn’t really care, high water everywhere
The first line makes me think of the aged care industry. God knows neither it nor the people within it are perfect, but it does feel like they’re telling us to take what we need off the shelf. In this case, Dad’s military service is coming back for him in a way he presumably never expected. What interests me more, though, is the following line – one of Dylan’s wisest. When I think the song is about me – which is usually when I’m listening to this version that rocks so hard it nearly makes me cry – it sounds like a gleefully solipsistic boast in which one is happily only competing with oneself. In this context, it feels like an acknowledgement of Dad’s failing abilities. He’ll never be more capable than he is now. He doesn’t really care either.
I wake up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom / Keepin’ away from the women, I’m a-givin’ ’em lotsa room
However much Dad loses in ability, he never loses enthusiasm; he still washes dishes, tries to fix things, and generally goes about his day. He’s also lost some of his ability to control his behaviour, which has lead to him remarking on women’s appearance in public – much to the embarrassment of Mum.
Thunder rollin’ over Clarksdale, everything a-lookin’ blue / I just can’t be happy, love, unless you’re happy too / It’s bad out there, high water everywhere
That second line feels like my Dad’s entire worldview crunched into a single sentence. Dad’s fundamental contradiction – not an unusual one, but one that exists nonetheless – is that he’s a man’s man with traditional masculine interests but is also highly attuned to the emotional vibe. It deeply frustrates him that he can’t even try to fix his family’s troubles anymore – indeed, that he’s often the source of our frustration and hurt. I do my best
The lyrics summarise Dad’s situation, but it’s the music that invents something new and helpful for me in dealing with it. The song is coated in a southern-fried Louisiana nightmare dread, like a horror movie in the swamps; it’s almost entirely built off of the one chord, with a sudden jerk upwards at the end of each verse that floats back down and reveals the journey wasn’t that high to begin with. This sense of dread is much more awesome than the sad banality of the actual thing; it’s easy to mock people for turning their lives into the epic melodramas they see on television, but it’s also easier to live through your problems when you associate them with grand ideas and music.